Federal authorities showed deliberate indifference toward inmates at the women's prison in Waseca, Minn., during a massive COVID-19 outbreak, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) argued Wednesday in a bid for their release.
The ACLU is seeking a temporary injunction to force the U.S. Bureau of Prisons to release many Waseca inmates to home confinement to curb the spread of the outbreak.
ACLU lawyer Clare Diegel called it a "drastic remedy" but necessary because of "terrifying" conditions at the prison.
But Erin Secord, an assistant U.S. attorney representing the Bureau of Prisons and Waseca's warden, insisted the facility had taken numerous steps to protect inmates, the infections had been quelled and the court lacked jurisdiction to release prisoners. She said the suit should be dismissed.
"We have shown that the Federal Correctional Institution at Waseca has been taking strides to mitigate the risks, and the implementation was taken seriously," Secord said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Leo Brisbois, who conducted the phone hearing, said he hoped to issue his recommendations by the end of next week.
Brisbois's findings will go to U.S. District Judge Michael Davis, who will decide what to do about the low-security prison where more than 70% of the inmates, about 450 women, have contracted COVID. The ACLU represents 14 inmates in the suit, 10 of whom have been infected.
The prison today only has three people who are infected — two staff members and an inmate — so there is no need for emergency action by the federal court, Secord said. She said vaccines for the prison were expected to arrive this month.
Diegel countered that COVID infections had been coming in waves and there have been no medical assurances that people who had COVID-19 could not be reinfected. ACLU medical experts said in court papers that there's been a rise of reinfection and the second infection can be worse. She said it was "shocking" that prison officials were hoping for the vaccine but unable to say when it would arrive or when inmates would receive it.
Most of the 14 inmates who are suing the prison were on the call, Diegel said.
She said social distancing has been critical to slowing the virus, yet the Bureau of Prisons ignored it by shipping more individuals into the prison, and stoked the outbreak by accepting a busload of prisoners who had been temporarily incarcerated at a jail in Oklahoma where there was a high infection rate.
Adding infected prisoners strained resources, she said, and caused COVID to spread through the Waseca inmate population at a time when U.S. Attorney General William Barr had told prisons to reduce their numbers.
Brisbois pressed Diegel on whether prisoners' releases could be handled individually by the sentencing federal judge without the ACLU suit, a procedure now in practice.
But Diegel said it was a systemic problem requiring a class-action suit and there was legal precedent for the court to act on behalf of all the women. She said that only 55 Waseca prisoners had been released under the federal CARES Act out of 350 who requested it.
Secord said the Bureau of Prisons had exercised discretion on whom to release, and it was not subject to judicial review.
She said Waseca officials had responded "responsibly and appropriately" after the outbreak, requiring masks, developing sanitation protocols and providing appropriate and timely medical care.
But the ACLU offered examples of medical care being delayed or denied and protocols not implemented.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224